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Thursday, 4 March 2010

Reform Immigration for America hits the iceberg on LGBT-immigration

Immigration Equality (organization)Image via Wikipedia
Source: - Feb 28

by Prerna Lal

Try convincing a bunch of (mostly) white gay bloggers that they should jump on the bus to immigration reform-ville -- even though said bus is driven and funded by an anti-same-sex marriage equality coalition that is hardly good friends with same-sex binational couples.

It's obviously not about to happen.

This weekend, Four Freedoms Fund funded yet another blogger briefing aimed at mainstream LGBT bloggers, set in the snowpocalypse of New York City. I thought I would have to miss the event due to a pneumonia diagnosis, but weighed down by responsibility and obligation, I decided to brave my friends at TSA, the weather, and the long flight from the t-shirt weather of San Francisco to the ice-winter of the East Coast. I survived; however, I am not sure if the bridge between the LGBT and immigrant communities that queer immigrant youth have worked so hard to build over the last couple years is still standing upright.

Representatives from the Reform Immigration for American (RI4A) campaign obliterated any semblance of unity between the mainstream LGBT community and the movement for immigration reform yesterday, dealing a major setback to themselves. They might as well have shot themselves in the foot.

For the purpose of damage control to immigrant rights, it's important to note that RI4A is an astro-turf, multi-million dollar campaign that does not necessarily represent the diverse voices of immigrant communities, and certainly not the immigrant grassroots. The mainstream white queer bloggers are also far from representative of all queers, and especially not queer people of color. We need to stop pretending that immigrant families do not include queer families and cease ignoring the intersections of these diverse communities, not least for the fact that citizenship is a traditionally violent mutable construct denied to queers, immigrants, and especially queer immigrants.

As usual, I was the only undocumented person in the room, let alone the only undocumented sexual and gender minority immigrant -- invited out of tokenism. I was specifically told by Bil Bilerico, of the LGBTQ blog The Bilerco Project, that I was invited as a blogger and "we cannot put you on any panels because other bloggers would be like, why does SHE get to talk?" Read the first sentence of this paragraph again. So we all pretended to conveniently forget about the presence of one of the founders and leaders of DreamActivist -- a national movement that has queer immigrant youth of color in leadership roles in disproportionate numbers, and which has tackled intersectional oppressions and built bridges between communities.

The high point of the blogger summit was still the DREAM Act-eligible students who are walking the Trail of DREAMs from Florida to Washington, D.C. -- a project of Florida Immigrant Rights Coalition, Students Working for Equal Rights, Presente, and DreamActivist. Two of the walkers who happen to be queer immigrants and in a relationship with each other -- Juan Rodriguez (20) and Felipe Matos (23) -- called in from Atlanta, Georgia, to discuss the ways in which the broken immigration system fails them.

Juan is documented while Felipe is undocumented. Their only legal recourse to stay together is either passage of the DREAM Act or the Uniting American Families Act, since immigration law will not recognize their partnership. Their bravery and willingness to not only speak out, but risk detention and their lives, by walking hundreds of miles through Klan-country was awe-inspiring.

But the solidarity lasted only a few minutes. Following a dismal and uninspiring showing from Frank Sharry of America's Voice, a few words from Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum was enough to obliterate any bridges under construction.

To his credit, Ali Noorani was brave to show up to weather the storm of anger and have a conversation that should have happened long ago. He admitted that there were no LGBT organizations on the Reform Immigration for America management team, allegedly to appease conservative religious organizations -- the same community that queer advocates have been fighting against to gain equal rights for so long. Noorani also went out on a limb to say that the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA) was not a winning strategy for the campaign to adopt, which made little sense given that UAFA has more cosponsors than even the popular DREAM Act and the tanked Gutierrez CIRASAP bill.

But Noorani failed dismally when he ranked oppressions, especially in the case of the Trail of DREAM students: "they won't be detained for being gay, they would be detained for being undocumented." This blatantly ignorant statement demonstrates a complete and utter failure at understanding intersectional oppression: Felipe is still undocumented because Juan is queer male and they are in a same-sex relationship -- these multi-dimensional identities are so intrinsically linked that it is hard to elevate one over the other, let alone rank them.

Immigration Equality had a good showing, though Executive Director Rachel Tiven was grilled about how UAFA would work, given the misconception that it it chips away at the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). It actually does nothing to DOMA because UAFA is about granting "permanent partnerships." While there is still an equal protection clause problem with granting "permanent partnerships" for same-sex couples while denying them to straight partners who want to immigrate, and maybe we should all place more emphasis on repealing DOMA, this was not the summit for that sort of intellectual discussion.

UAFA will not solve all the problems of LGBT immigrants, and in the same vein, it is absolutely false to say the CIR does not help same-sex immigrants. Hailing from the National Council of Lesbian Rights, Lisa Cisneros Esq. made great points about how the fight for an LGBT-inclusive immigration reform was not just about the Uniting American Families Act. Undocumented sexual and gender minorities are disproportionately affected by the broken immigration system; we are less likely to report crimes and more likely to be targeted, among other things. But by then, people had mostly shut down and were not willing to listen.

Ramon Johnson from summed up the day with a great metaphor when Noorani asked the LGBT bloggers to push back against exclusion while still supporting Comprehensive Immigration Reform: "It feels like you are telling us to give a big push to your bus while we have to run behind it trying to get on." An inclusive immigration reform bill should be a fantastic opportunity to bridge communities and build another broad-based progressive civil rights movement.
The only good thing going for the Reform Immigration for America campaign right now is the participation of DREAM Act students as trainers and trainees at movement-building organizing camps across the country. In the coming weeks, concerned parties from this disaster of a summit will once again work to lay the foundation for building bridges between communities and peoples all over again. But that hardly makes up for the destruction of bridges and pillars that occurred yesterday as RI4A ran into a major iceberg in New York.

Here is some free advice for the Reform Immigration for America Campaign if it does not want to sink like the Titanic in the very near future:
  • Bring representatives from the Uniting American Families Act and the DREAM Act movement on the management board at RI4A.
  • Engage in diversity trainings for all staff and organizers, namely "How to Talk to Queers" and "How to Talk to Queers of Color," for starters.
  • Hire more women in positions of power. The immigration reform debate between organizations at the very top seems to recede into "my cock is bigger than yours" all too often.
  • Stand up to the anti-equality so-called "Faith coalition" if you want support from most sexual and gender minorities and young America.
  • Do not use oxymorons like "reformed humane detention," and take the issue of enforcement-provisions and criminalizing immigrants in an overall compromise comprehensive legislation lightly.
  • Do not deceive immigrant communities into thinking that an immigration-reform legislation has been introduced -- at this point, there is NO CIR bill and it has been coming every month for the last 14 months.
  • Throw your support behind standalone bills such as the DREAM Act, AgJobs, and the Uniting American Families Act instead of holding the lives of immigrants and our families hostage to the failure of a so-called comprehensive strategy. That also counts as "attrition through enforcement."
  • Millions of dollars spent on messaging and keywords don't replace the power of passion and energy to drive a movement to success.
  • This is a battle for civil rights for EVERYONE. Throwing people under the bus by compromising low-hanging fruits is not a winning strategy.
  • Stop doing us more damage as a movement and acknowledge that young undocumented immigrants are the driving force of a really LGBT-inclusive grassroots immigrant rights movement for real change in immigrant communities.
I might never get an invite to another RI4A or LGBT-Immigration summit again but I don't need that privileged space to fight for equal rights for everyone. Here is the bottom-line: UAFA is not the only pressing issue for same-sex immigrants in the United States, but the Reform Immigration for America campaign cannot expect to win widespread LGBT support for comprehensive immigration legislation by throwing same-sex binational couples under the bus. In fact, they cannot and should not expect to win at all.

Fighting pneumonia in my lungs, in many minds, and signing off with love from Utah while enroute to the gay capital of the United States: San Francisco. Can't stop, won't stop, 'til we build a solid movement for inclusive immigration reform back up.

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